What is the Rhetorical Situation?
The rhetorical situation refers to all of the things (aka contextual variables or elements of discourse) in a setting, place, or time that you need to consider when endeavoring to communicate with others.
When writing, researching, and interpreting information, people analyze their rhetorical situation in order to determine whether what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
In the classical tradition, the rhetorical situation was conceptualized as a tight focus on Audience, Purpose, and Topic. Aristotle exhorts rhetors to carefully analyze their audiences and common places (topoi) and counterarguments before writing. More contemporary scholarly conversations, as explored below, regard the rhetorical situation as an ecology or network of interdependent variables, including Audience; Medium, Media; Occasion, Exigency & Kairos; Purpose; Subject, Topic; Writer, Speaker, Rhetor, Knowledge Worker
The Rhetorical Situation may also be called occasion; rhetorical situation; rhetorical occasion; situational constraints; the spin room; the no-spin room, the communication situation.
Rhetorical Situations are sometimes described as formal, semi-formal, or informal. Alternatively, contexts for written documents may be described as home-based, school-based, or work-based projects.
Related Concepts: Epistemology; Rhetoric; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Stance
Why Does the Rhetorical Situation Matter?
Successful communicators analyze their rhetorical situation in order to determine the available means of persuasion.
Writers, speakers, and knowledge workers . . . need a robust understanding of the rhetorical situation in order to respond appropriately to an exigency, a call for discourse.
Classical Rhetorical Model
Since antiquity, rhetoricians have exhorted writers and speakers to think deeply and carefully about their audience, purpose, and topic.
In the rhetorical tradition, this process—this activity of considering what you want to say, your purpose, and then adjusting what you want to say based on your evaluation of your audience—is called rhetorical analysis.
Rhetorical Analysis begins with a careful consideration of the contextual variables that need to be considered to respond with clarity and persuasion to the communication situation.
What do your readers know about the topic? Will original research be necessary? How about empirical research? traditional research suffice? Will your audience be persuaded by personal knowledge? Will they require facts and figures?
What channels of communication should you use to reach your audience? Should the work be published online or transmitted as a printed report?
Occasion, Exigency & Kairos
Is this the most appropriate time to compose your text? Should the text be written but then filed in the trash?
What is my purpose? thesis? research question? hypothesis?
What is the status of the scholarly conversation?
Writer, Speaker, Rhetor, Knowledge WorkerWhat sort of persona, tone, and rhetorical stance should you adopt given the situation?
Scholarly conversations about what those contextual variables are have evolved over time.
Loyd Bitzer’s Rhetorical Model
In 1968, Loyd Bitzer, a rhetorician, articulated a theoretical model of the rhetorical situation.
Bitzer depicts the rhetorical situation as
- “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence [emphasis added] which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (p.9).
Thus, Bitzer imagines the rhetorical situation as a dynamic between three primary forces:
For Bitzer, the impetus for writing or speaking is the situation:
- “Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation” (p. 9).
- The situation gives rise to an exigency, which is “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing that is other than it should be” (p. 6)
Moreover, Bitzer argues the situation presumes a response:
- “the situation dictates the sorts of observations to be made; it dictates the significant physical and verbal responses. . . .” (p. 5)
Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation, published as the first article in a new academic journal (Rhetoric and Philosophy) initiated an academic conversation that is still ongoing. To this day, Bitzer is credited for introducing the concept of exigency and for questioning how constraints—persons, events, objects, and relations–impinge on composing.
|Rhetorical Affordances & Constraints|
persons, events, objects, and relations
|What social narratives, material conditions, histories are raised by the rhetorical situation? How do these constraints shape what is said, what is not said, what is researched, what is not researched.|
The rhetorical situation for a discourse act (e.g., a speech or a text) invariably has affordances and constraints. For instance, if you are driving your car down a busy road at 50 miles per hour, that context, or situation, will constrain whether or not you open the text, read it, really understand it, and respond to it. Perhaps there are no other cars on the road or perhaps you have a passenger who can help you negotiate reviewing and responding to the text message. Or, perhaps prevailing laws–such as laws that prohibit texting while driving–might inform your decision. Or perhaps your newsfeed just alerted you to a 50 car pile up. Or maybe your car has affordances such as hands-free technologies that include playing the text message.
Furthermore, Bitzer deserves credit for introducing the notion that writing occurs in a sociocultural context–i.e., that there are rhetorical constraints that exist in the material world that shape how writers and speakers should respond to exigencies, situations.
However, in contemporary Writing Studies (as well as other academic disciplines), Bitzer’s argument that “Rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation” (p. 9) has been disputed on theoretical and empirical grounds:
- Empirical Grounds
Bitzer’s model presumes that the writer or speaker lacks agency, that they are merely reactive to situations, that the situation determines whether or not something is translated to discourse/text or not. In contrast to this view, empirical research has found that writers and speakers bring their own agendas and desires to writing situations. When people enter a new rhetorical situation, they have aims/purposes, personalities, literacy histories, past experiences. All of those histories and more shape the their perception of the rhetorical situation, their invention, research, and reasoning processes.
Rhetors experience an incessant flow of occasions and problems during their lives. And it is the rhetor who chooses to focus on any one particular rhetorical situation.
- Theoretical Grounds
Bitzer’s theory of the rhetorical situation affirms the tenets of positivism: (1) An objective reality exists independent of humans that can be discerned by humans. (2) There is a direct relationship between situation and discourse–i.e., that specific situations call for specific responses.
In contrast, rhetorical theory, postmodernism, constructivism, and feminism, among others, assume that interpretation, reasoning, and communication are dialogic processes–i.e., independent processes that coexist and shape one other. Thus, by this perspective, the rhetorical situation is shaped by
- linguistic constraints
- material constraints (e.g., timing, economics, governments, technology)
- ideological constraints (especially gender, class, and race).
The Ecological Model
From the 1980s to 2000s, scholars from across disciplines (e.g., Rhetoric, Writing Studies, Gender Studies, and Philosophy) further problematized models of the rhetorical situation that
- implied communication is a simple process of transmitting a message, information, from sender to receiver
- portrayed rhetorical situations as “unique, unconnected with other situations” (Cooper, p. 367).
- oversimplified ways interpretation is an act of imagination, a social construction.
By the close of the 20th century, thanks to postmodernism, constructivism, and feminism, the discipline of Writing Studies embraced a new theory of the rhetorical situation: the ecological model.
The ecological model conceptualizes the rhetorical situation as composed of a universe of variables that interact with one another, rhetors, and audiences. Thus, rather than conceptualizing the rhetorical situation as a one-to-one dialog between the writer and the writer’s audience, the ecological model attempts to conceptualize the rhetorical situation with greater complexity–i.e., as a milieu of rhetorical elements that occur in a multi-dimensional space.
First introduced to Writing Studies by Greg Myers (1985) and then developed by Marilyn Cooper (1986), the ecological model of the rhetorical situation assumes “writing is an activity through which a person is continually engaged with a variety of socially constituted systems” Cooper p. 367).
“The metaphor for writing suggested by the ecological model is that of a web, in which anything that affects one strand of the web vibrates throughout the whole” (Cooper p, 370).
Rather than debate either the situation invokes the rhetoric or the writer/speaker invokes the rhetoric, the ecological view assumes both the rhetor and the sociocultural context are in dialog, in co-creation with one another:
“all organisms–but especially human beings-are not simply the results but are also the causes of their own environments. . . . While it may be true that at some instant the environment poses a problem or challenge to the organism, in the process of response to that challenge the organism alters the terms of its relation to the outer world and recreates the relevant aspects of that world. The relation between organism and environment is not simply one of interaction of internal and external factors, but of a dialectical development of organism and milieu in response to each other. (Lewontin et al., p. 275)
The Psychological Model
In psychology, the STEM community, and the learning sciences, investigators explore the role of mindset and personality on interpretation, creativity, and composing.
For example, research has found that people’s mindset about their competencies as writers and public speakers influence how they interact with rhetorical situations. People who hold a growth mindset about their potential as writers and communicators are more likely than people who hold a fixed mindset to engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning. Being preoccupied with negative thoughts when composing makes writing aversive.
Being intellectually open is crucial to putting aside one’s own perspective and living in the shoes of the Other. Being narrow minded about a topic undermines efforts at research, rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning.
Being able to engage in metacognition & self-regulation is crucial to successfully navigating rhetorical contexts. We all don’t know what we don’t know. That’s unavoidable, that’s human. However, openness, metacognition and regulation are needed to question how our own experiences and observations shape our interpretations, research methods, and knowledge claims.
So, on the Topic of the Rhetorical Situation, What’s Next?
Moving forward, as bots emerge, as Artificial Intelligence reaches consciousness, technorhetoricians are beginning to explore ways nonhuman elements enter the communication situation and assert agency.